School should be about more than math and literacy; it should be just as much about new experiences in new places --both of which take the student away from the familiar. Tomorrow Creativity College is taking ALL (not just G.T. kids), ALL 5th & 6th grade students to see WICKED at the Orpheum in Memphis.
The only students who have done anything like this before are the G.T. kids who went with me to see "Mary Poppins" at the Orpheum last year. The truth is... it is unacceptable to deprive a child of this experience simply because they aren't G.T... Children are children regardless of the labels we affix to them --each and every one of them need and deserve new experiences in new places that grow them in more ways than we ever know.
Over the years I have taken countless groups of my G.T. kids to see many plays at the Orpheum. We've seen "Miss Saigon," "Les Miserables, "Lion King," " Phantom of the Opera," "Aida," "Blue Man Group" .... the list goes on and on. Those kids (even the boys) loved it and begged to go back! They returned to school wearing the t-shirt and talking about the unbelievable things they saw. They talked about how beautiful the inside of the Orpheum is and how the set seemed impossible. I always knew that the classmates they were talking to wished they could have been there. Wouldn't you have?
This time I'm taking ALL ...not just the G.T. kids. I look back and am saddened that all those years I only took my G.T. kids. Like I said, "Children are children regardless of the labels we affix to them ---each and every one of them need and deserve new experiences in new places that grow them in more ways than we ever know." Now everyone can talk about what they saw...now no one has to "wish" they could have been there.
Finally I got it right...
Wise sayings are remembered and repeated because they are... well, wise. One of those is: "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade!" This past year I lost my secondary kids when our high school was closed. No bitterness, no anger... simply sadness. We knew it was coming. Unfortunately, farm families are finding their way of life disrupted as small schools are closed --for us, it wasn't low test scores (ours were good), it simply is the current direction education is headed --big is better. I'm not going to argue the small school verses big school argument. The truth is there are opportunities big schools can offer that small schools can't, but there are also opportunities that small schools can offer that big schools can't (a fully, active secondary gifted program for one). Enough of that. It is what it is. I am both a dreamer and a realist.
I was fortunate to keep my elementary G.T. job and talked to my progressive administrator about extending the program in a direction not seen anywhere (to my knowledge). We began "Creativity College" --not an extra pull-out program, but a real part of the curriculum which focuses on teaching creative thinking skills and enabling both students and teachers to see the carry-over of those skills within the regular classroom and across disciplines. The program reaches each and every student in our school in grades K-6. Each class comes twice a week, along with the classroom teacher, and experiences activities that take students in a direction uncommon in the regular classroom. We began the year by giving all students and the teachers a creativity test (pre-test) and plan to do the same at the end of the year to see if there is growth.
Another purpose of the program is to involve all students (not just G.T. students) in experiences in drama and public speaking --a chance to work on a whole group project with a presentation for parents. In recent years, so many kids not in G.T. would stop me in the hall and say, "Miss Hesse, I wish I could be in a play." Our first venture in this area was our Creativity College Christmas Program which was a huge success.
The kids at Weiner Elementary are loving their lemonade, and I admit --I am too.
My high school students know how to face a challenge, whether it is on the basketball court, in an AP Biology class, or within the G.T. weekly seminar class. They know that whatever we do, it's got to be GREAT --nothing less is acceptable. They have learned to take on and successfully meet the challenge of optimum effort.
At the beginning of this school year I asked those outstanding young men and women what they wanted to do in G.T. this school year. I was a little surprised when they quickly responded, "Another play!" Angie (my partner in crime) and I work 'em pretty hard any time we have public performances (READ THE JANUARY 2012 ENTRY TITLED "All the Plays), knowing the hard work results in much more than a good play.
I thought about it and decided to lay down the ultimate challenge --a musical. You see, none of the students are dancers or singers. The next time we met I suggested the musical, "Bye, Bye Birdie!" expecting to hear the boys complain and the girls worried about singing. Didn't happen. They were excited, believing they could do even that --either the past theater experiences have done a good job (instilling confidence supreme!) or a bad job (no sense of reality at all). Regardless, this group of students have taken the task on with both determination and joy.
I don't know why I was surprised ...you see, these same kids are facing a true ULTIMATE challenge --loosing their school. The year has been filled with laughter, hugs, tears, and a bonding that is stronger than it would ever have been without their sorrow of not walking in familiar hallways next year.
The title of the chosen play we are ending our high school G.T. program with is both ironic and poignant --"Bye, Bye Birdie." You see, our school mascot is the cardinal. One of the kids was concerned about the insinuation of the title --did it make light of our sadness? Finally, the group decided that in the title there is strength. Our small school has given this group of young men and women the confidence and abilities they need, regardless of what life throws their way. It has given each of them wings to fly, no matter where they are. For these kids, "Bye, Bye Birdie" is their chance to say goodbye to a place they dearly love and to do so in a way that celebrates their time together.
I have been living in G.T. Camelot –a special place that has been exciting, joyful, and meaningful --a place that insured good memories for students, their parents, and our community; a place that grew gifted kids. Fortunately, I always realized this; I never took it for granted, especially after I witnessed program after program discontinue many G.T. pull-out classes --first those for secondary students and then those for middle school students. Programs that once immersed identified students in affective development and creativity were replaced with academic programs. I am a strong supporter of Pre-AP and AP, recognizing the needed rigor and challenge it brought to gifted students who met a curriculum requiring their best; however, AP is not a gifted program. Weiner’s program (due to its small size) is a microcosm of what could be and what should be, for each gifted student regardless of their age. It is a place that honors creativity and agrees with Einstein when he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” While I was in Japan, participating in the Fulbright Program, I had a conversation with Japan's Director of Education where I told him that educators in the United States envied Japan's continuing high scores in mathematics and the sciences. He smiled and said, "We in Japan admire the pragmatism of the United States. Our students are focused on the one correct answer and do not have the skills to seek many solutions, many ideas --something crucial if Japan is to continue to succeed." Creativity. Our gifted programs insured that older students continued their growing of creative thinking. I wonder what the cost is of leaving that behind?
I also grieve for the end of affective development for the gifted student right at the time when it is most needed –the teen years. Despite their remarkable talents, the negative characteristics of our gifted students –whether it be perfectionism or a lack of organizational skills –have the potential to inhibit what Carl Rogers called the “self-actualized person.”
The future of our small school is bleak as families who relied on farming as a way of life are forced to move where the jobs are. The school will close and secondary kids will, in all probability, lose their secondary G.T. program. Arthurian scholar Norris J. Lacy once commented that "Camelot can be anywhere." I believe G.T. Camelot should be everywhere.
As G.T. teachers we are often perceived as and feel as "the other." After all, there typically is only one G.T. teacher in a building and even in large schools where there may be two, we are pretty much isolated beings. I can imagine what many teachers must think because I remember being them at one time:
- "Wow! She has it easy --the cream of the crop!"
-" Must be nice not having to worry about testing."
- "Wish I had the luxury of doing the units she gets to do."
- "Three days at a nice hotel for the state G.T. meeting?"
- "Twelve kids in a class at a time? Let her take my 25!"
- "She doesn't even have to average grades!"
-" So why does she get to take the neat field trips?"
Need I go on? So... how can we change that perception, and why should we? On the surface what many teachers think about us appears true. As G.T. teachers we quickly defend ourselves with that magic word, "but." The cream of the crop are a real challenge and have their share of prickly thorns. Testing? We are being held more and more accountable for, not just what our students do, but the entire student population. Don't they know that? Our "fun" units aren't found in any idea book, but require countless hours of research, planning, locating, and arranging. I admit that AGATE is pretty fun --I'll give 'em that one; however, I always leave refreshed, with a head full of ideas. The smaller class size is nice, however we are eager to work with all kids who need that extra something our programs offer. The higher level and increased expectation for response to learning are not feasible for all. Averaging grades is a chore --but so is keeping up with documentation and all the ins and outs of validating what we do. I think each of us would agree that more field trips for all students would be wonderful, however the trips we do go on are an important part of our curriculum and not just something we do for fun. So what do we do? First of all, we throw away the score card -- the us verse them.
We need classroom teachers on our team, and they need us. I continually tell my teachers: " I don't know how you do what you do." I truly MEAN IT --the demands of the regular classroom teacher are overwhelming. It is crucial to tell them that you know how hard their job is. Get involved with what they are doing and do it eagerly. Let them see you as part of the school and not apart from what they do. Use the website resource and email them sites you think they might want to use. Let them know that you are trying to help them. Find out what teachers are doing in their classrooms and share what you have. Attend special project presentations in the regular classroom any time you can. This shows that you value what classroom teachers do in their rooms. Comment on the hall displays outside each classroom --let teachers see you stopping and taking time to really appreciate their efforts. Send individualized emails --not those that go to everyone. Make sure you email is written so that the receiving teacher notices you composed it just for her. Remember to thank classroom teachers for the skills your G.T. kids have that allow them to go beyond --skills they learned in the regular classroom. And...
Be your own cheerleader so teachers have SPECIFIC knowledge of how hard you work. The big buzz word in the media today is "transparency." Live in a glass-walled classroom where everyone is aware of your responsibilities to the state department. Share your documentation and your units; let your teachers see what you are doing! Find ways to include regular classrooms within your G.T. projects; G.T. kids can share what they are doing and plan activities for their classmates. Everyone benefits.
Friendship is not just something that happens, it is something that must be worked on, but at some point the effort required of "work" changes and becomes enjoyable.
In May our school had an Awards Assembly where students were recognized for their academic achievements and participation in sports programs. Toward the end of the assembly, the P.T.O. president presented the first Weiner Elementary Teacher of the Year Award which was determined by a vote of the elementary faculty. I was simultaneously stunned and humbled when I heard my name called. I jokingly said they must have decided to give it to the oldest teacher, however I was so proud. There are few things more gratifying than recognition from your peers --they know a side of you even your family doesn't know. They know what you do, how you interact, how you handle difficulty, and how much you care about what you do.
The photographs of the 25 special women above speak to why we need classroom teachers on our team. They have much to offer --support, encouragement, knowledge, and above all ...friendship. I am blessed to work with such an exceptional group of professionals. They have taught me much.
For Our Parents & Friends Who Helped Us Journey to Wonderland
Many Hours, Many Plans –
Many Parents, Many Hands,
A bright red door that bends and folds,
A forest of rose trees, red buckets to hold.
Patchwork wing chairs and cups stacked tall,
A giant teapot --once a beach ball.
A tall, wide toadstool with a kooshy red seat, Green, giggly flowers with cute bare feet.
Many hours, many plans –
Many parents, many hands.
Red jackets, buckle shoes, white powder wigs, A wooden spoon and folded fan –oh so big!
Striped pants, brown ears, a polka dot vest, Big, spiral backdrop, surpassing the best.
A bright, orange tabletop that shrinks and grows, Six fancy flower hats, all in a row.
Many hours, many plans –
Many parents, many hands.
Four worried cards, beautiful to behold, Soldiers in helmets, powerful and bold.
Makeup: evolving, transforming, pain-staking, Cat claws, purple fur, smile never changing,
Heart thrones, sparking; horn banner flowing, Hula hoop bellies and propeller beanies going.
Many hours, many plans –
Many parents, many hands.
Tall hatter’s hat, pointed toe shoes, black bows in the hair, Miles of teeth, green horned head, red shining eyes that dare.
Queen and King in white, red, and black, Life-size egg, eating from a sack.
Baby buggy, baby gown, bunny ears and ruffled collar, Hooded black knight, caped and armed, that often has to holler.
Many hours, many plans –
Many parents, many hands.
Suit of gray, legs of blue, yellow hands up and down, Mouse in vest, rabbit in red, running all around.
Cook in white with fushia hair –stirring, stomping, throwing, Girls in blue with snow white aprons, sometimes shrinking, sometimes growing.
Deep red carpet, stone wall sheet, Wooden prayer rail, white sock feet.
Many hours, many plans –
Many parents, many hands.
Dressing actors, always on time, Helping actors learn each and every line.
Phone calls and email, spray paint and glue, Starting over, starting again –insuring everything is true.
Picking up t-shirts, party for the cast, Parents creating memories, memories that last.
Many hours, many plans –
Many parents, many hands.
EACH AND EVERY THING MENTIONED IN THIS POEM WERE CREATED BY PARENTS, GRANDPARENTS, AND COMMUNITY FRIENDS --
Thank you, for working so hard to take
All these children to a place they’ll never forget –
A place you made possible, a place you created.
Wonderland, to most, is an imaginary place…however
at our school nothing is impossible because of you.
My husband and I have two grown daughters that daily make us proud. Our oldest daughter is a wife and mother to two daughters and is currently changing career directions, entering the medical field. Our youngest daughter is a wife and mother to two daughters and one son; she teaches yoga and Pilates at a regional medical wellness facility. Both daughters are active in the community in which they live and still manage to be excellent cooks and moms who play with their children. Both strive daily to achieve balance in the many roles they play, believing in the importance of each, and although they would probably both beg to differ with me, they somehow manage to get it all done.
As teachers of gifted students, we too, find ourselves fulfilling many valuable roles --everything from maintaining documentation to providing in-service for classroom teachers to developing curriculum for multi-age students. The challenge that challenges is how to get it all done. After 24 years in the field I'm still trying to discover that magic balance formula; however . . .although maybe it should be... that is NOT the balance that concerns me.
When I began coursework in gifted education, I learned the importance of balancing instruction equally between creativity, affective education, and critical thinking. I learned how important it was for gifted students of all ages to spend time with other gifted students, exploring differentiated topics in a differentiated manner. Our programs reflected that thinking and provided identified students balanced instruction --instruction honoring all areas. Unfortunately, in recent years programming has shifted focus. Now we find students even as young as 6th grade being served, not in the G.T. resource room, but in the regular classroom through what's called Pre-Advanced Placement. I agree that in the past the rigor in the regular classroom (where our kids spent most of their time) lacked challenge for gifted students. I also agree that in order to change that, gifted education had to hone in with a laser commitment, determined to pull in Pre AP and AP coursework to fill that void. There was a downside, however, to that victory... one that is seldom acknowledged --one that I've heard other G.T. teachers express...our G.T. programs became academic programs.
Students lost their time together --they lost their chance to explore areas of personal interest --they lost exposure to differentiated subjects and ways of responding to their learning, they lost immersion in affective development, and they lost genuine experiences in creativity. I remember inwardly weeping when I would occasionally hear a G.T. teacher expressing excitement about NOT having to pull out high school and middle school students anymore; they were now using Pre-AP for their G.T. requirement.
Why did we let go of what was so wonderful? Why didn't we give our kids the best of ALL worlds? Why didn't we fight to maintain a fine balance in our curriculum and the delivery of that curriculum? Our victory in the regular classroom resulted in the loss of so much. Gifted programs in the gifted and talented "setting" are virtually gone for older students. I can honestly say that the older my G.T. kids get the MORE they need their pullout program. It is true that we have those kids who, even without experiences in the gifted classroom, will still go on and achieve in college on a level worthy of their potential; however, I still wonder if their success would have been at an even higher level with continued experiences in creativity and affective development --something we'll never know.
While I was in Japan, participating in the Fulbright Program, I had a conversation with Japan's Director of Education where I told him that educators in the United States envied Japan's continuing high scores in mathematics and the sciences. He smiled and said, "We in Japan admire the pragmatism of the United States. Our students are focused on one correct answer and do not have the skills to seek many solutions, many ideas --something crucial if Japan is to continue to succeed." Creativity. Our programs insured that older students continued their growing of creative thinking. I wonder what the cost is of leaving that behind?
Sadly, we all see those G.T. kids whose negative G.T. characteristics often find them floundering; they become their own worst enemy, as is sometimes said. Unfortunately, these students too often become involved in drugs during their teenage years or decide they don't care anymore. I especially think of one bright young man I had in recent years who hated school. He would skip school for several days, but always came on G.T. day. Sometimes he would come for the G.T. seminar class in the middle of the day and then leave. The principal and I talked OFTEN about him (his home situation was a challenge) --this principal knew the only thing keeping him in school at all was G.T.; the decision was made to leave him in the program with the hope of keeping him in school. For two years I worked with this young man and with his teachers. Success or failure story? Only the years ahead will answer that. I remember another high school student who was one of the most creative students I've ever had. He managed academically; however, the products and ideas he generated in the G.T. setting amazed me. It was his safe haven --a place that nurtured his gift. I've wondered if the luxury of having a place to be himself --to be creative --is what kept him going...
Where is the fine balance we once offered all gifted students? Where is that balance that honored creativity and affective development just as much as academics and critical thinking? Where are the programs that sought to identify creative children as well as those of high intelligence? I am proud of what has been done with Pre-AP and AP, appreciating the hard fought battle necessary for transforming classrooms, but I also mourn for what was given up in that endeavor. Our programs lost the balance that honored the whole of the gifted student. It's time to rejoice in the rigor our students now experience in today's classrooms and recapture what was lost. It's time to level the scale --it's time to reclaim a indeed very fine and wonderful balance.
I have learned much from the teachers I have worked with over the years. Each of us is different in how we relate to our students, but we all share a profession that entrusts us with the possibility of what each child "could" be. That truth has always unnerved me. Everything I do or say has the potential to build up or tear down, based on the child's perception of what I did or said. Teachers are continually watched --so much of what children learn from us has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter we teach.
Several years ago I found myself watching a teacher I worked with --what I learned from her had absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter she taught. This teacher effortlessly made learning for her students fun and effective. Kids loved her and eagerly entered her room each morning with a smile, happy to be with her. She evidently believed laughter was a necessary component for learning because her class laughed often. Yet, she had great class control; her discipline techniques were virtually invisible. The students in her room cared for one another because she cared for each of them in a way that was definitely visible. Toward the end of each year, her students topped the scores on state mandated testing and when it came time to clean out desks and go home for the summer there were always tears --her students couldn't bear to think of not having her as their teacher any more.
There was, however, an elephant in her classroom that no one ever saw --an elephant she successfully ignored. You see, this teacher's home life was a challenge. When the bell rang to go home at the end of the day, she went home to problems and a situation that would have completely overwhelmed most. I have often wondered where her strength came from.
We were blessed to have her in our district for several years, however the time came for her to move on and so after the last teacher day of school, we surprised her with a special dinner at a restaurant. We were so loud that several at the tables nearby gave us "the look." The laughter continued until, finally, we decided to go around the table and tell what we would most remember about her. Someone mentioned her laughter, one mentioned a particularly funny story about an incident with a child, the stories and the laughter continued. Then it was my turn. I choked back the wetness I felt behind my eyes and began, "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I want you to know that we know the stress you have been under this year and admire the way you have handled all the things you have going on in your life. Despite everything, you have always come to school and been such a joy for the students in your classroom and such a joy for each of us. You have showed us that no matter what we have to deal with, we can choose to make our classrooms places kids love to be." The elephant in the room saw the tears in our eyes, turned around, and left.
Of all the teachers I have worked with in my thirty three years of teaching, she is the teacher I most admire. She was a craftsman --an innovator --and someone who heaped love and joy on each child. She was an example of selflessness and the power of choosing not to allow feelings to determine actions. She was my teacher.
About twenty years ago my teacher duty found me monitoring elementary children who arrived before the 7:45 bell. Most days this included a bunch of bus kids whose drivers obviously didn't get the memo about NOT arriving before 7:45.
In November of that year I noticed a new boy sitting by himself, keeping his head down. The next day he again sat by himself amidst kids greeting friends and beginning the day's sharing and telling. The third day I went over and sat next to him, starting up a conversation. He told me he'd already been in three different schools since school started and from there, we talked about lots of things. He became my early morning bench buddy; each morning our voices joined the others.
About three days before Christmas break he handed me a small, brown paper sack saying, "I know this isn't much, but I wanted to get you something for Christmas. You have been my only friend." I opened the sack and inside was an slightly used artist's paintbrush. As I took it out he continued, "I found this at home and cleaned it up the best I could. I thought you might use it with your G.T. kids." I thanked him with a hug as the homeroom bell rang, went to my classroom, shut the door, and cried. I should have cried because of the selfless love he showed me, I should have cried because he felt he had no other friend --I should have, but no...I cried in shame, realizing I had no idea what his name was. Let me repeat that ...I had no idea what his name was.
My teacher heart had seen a child in need and reacted to that need. Yet, I never thought to ask, "What is your name?" When we came back from Christmas break my bench buddy was gone. The family evidently had moved yet again. Of all the things that have happened to me in my teaching career, that one event --more than any other --forever changed the way I view each student. We do not teach children. We teach Eric and Katie and Burt and Karli --we teach Jody and Jason and Amy and Claire. It isn't enough to do the right thing for a student --we must value each, respecting who they are --someone with a name who is not like any other individual who has ever lived or ever will live.
I framed the paintbrush and keep it hanging near my desk. Throughout the years, at some point all the kids I serve notice it and ask, "Why do you have a paintbrush in a frame?" I tell them my story. I want them to think about the kids who need good friends and their power to be that needed friend, and I want them to know they are more than my students --they are individuals that I am honored to know and learn with.
Someone is almost always talking in my classroom. I admit I talk more than I should, but so much of what we do ends up in discussion, which is good. Students explain their thinking, share their beliefs, and both argue and defend their personal truths. Class discussion indicates engagement and enables students to understand that not everyone thinks as they do.
The world of today's student and today's teacher is seldom still. Even when the noise of our high definition televisions, the chatter of our family and friends, and the vibes of our favorite ipod music disappear, we continue to hear the silent sounds transmitted through our fingertips as we communicate with our computer and smartphone apps. We are continually bombarded by exterior messages.
Cliches are cliches for a reason; the saying, "Silence is golden," could now read, "Silence is rare." Yet, it is silence that enables the brain to reach into long forgotten files and memories, retrieving that which is called insight. I'm convinced poets honor that silence of the mind, knowing it is there that words show themselves, revealing passages that are both beautiful and true --
--that's why ten Halloweens ago I bought the tombstone... not one of those cheap, plastic looking ones you see at Walmart, but a tombstone that looked almost real; it even had a little wrought iron fence attached to the bottom. I brought it to school the day students were beginning a new writing assignment, setting it up at the front of the classroom after we'd gone over the rubric. Immediately, one of the kids said, "What's that for? Halloween is over." (Don't you love it when kids say just what you'd planned for them to say?) We talked about silence for a bit --interesting discussion, by the way --and then I explained that anytime the tombstone was out, it was Graveyard Time. That meant no talking, no whispering, no eye contact --nothing but the occasional, faint sound of a pencil moving. It was amazing how easily they took to Graveyard Time; even those kids who always have a question or a whispered comment got it. The result? Everyone's papers improved, including my own.
I don't overuse Graveyard Time, saving it for those meaty assignments that requires inner reflection and the quest for inner wisdom. For some reason the tombstone works with all ages. Why? I'm not really sure. Perhaps they think the tombstone provides them a good excuse to rise to the next level and show just how smart they are, or perhaps they think that any teacher with a tombstone in her room is not to be messed with.